New Year’s Eve in Brazil is a celebration shadowed only by Carnival (and World Cup every fourth year). It involves not only parties, but also rituals handed down from native indian and African religions, later incorporated into Brazilian Catholicism, and subsequently, popular culture.
In the U.S., the only rituals I’ve witnessed on New Year’s Eve have been drinking a lot, slamming champagne at midnight, and calling or texting ex-lovers to leave incomprehensible, drunken messages. In Brazil, the rituals are much more symbolic and hopeful in nature.
Most activities center around a beach, and not just for a fireworks display. Brazilians believe that welcoming in the new year is an opportunity for prosperity in the upcoming months.
Here are some of the more common traditions, as explained to me by friends and family.
Washing feet in the water: represents washing away any negative elements of the previous year allowing you to begin the year clean.
Throwing flowers in the sea: throwing white flowers into the water is an offering to honor the goddess of the sea, Iemanja, a goddess from the Afro-Brazil native religions and incorporated into Catholicism as the Virgin Mary as part of the missionary strategy. She is assumed to have the power to grant your wishes for the new year.
Jumping the waves: jumping seven waves in the sea somehow seals the deal on the wishes requested. Maybe Iemanja wants to see some effort before she passes out the luck.
Speaking of luck, we were lucky enough this year to have been invited to a friend’s party in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, for New Year’s Eve in an apartment overlooking the beach. While the crowd was nowhere near as big as the 2 million at Copacabana, I was still surprised to see how important a trip to the beach is for Brazilians during this event. (They were actually busing people in.) I don’t know how many showed up on Barra da Tijuca beach that evening, but the sand was covered.
What is really amazing to witness is the pure excitement and joy that collects during the course of the evening. This night represents for me the attitude of the Brazilians – mostly hopeful and peaceful, and accepting of their current situations as the possibility of change and luck always lingers are the corner of the new year.